Wise and noble men have come to bury the Boston Celtics for years now, only to end up in praise of them. At present it is fashionable to assume that they will be replaced by the latest pretender—the New York Knickerbockers, a young team with quickness and thew. Philadelphia, though cast in a whole new post-Chamberlain image, also cannot be dismissed. The three teams, in fact, appear sufficiently close in ability to suggest that there will be another imperfect finish, where one team wins the regular season and another the divisional playoffs. This will continue to happen as long as the NBA persists in its illogical and discriminatory playoff policy, one that penalizes the season champion by making it play the third-place team in the first round, while the runner-up gets in easier against the fourth-place finisher.
Expansion has not been equitable either, and some of the best of the established teams have given up the least talent to the new clubs. The Knicks, for instance, had only the sixth-best record last year, but they suffered the most, losing two important defensive operatives, Dick Van Arsdale and Emmette Bryant, to Phoenix. The loss was then compounded when the Suns sent Bryant to Boston. Nevertheless, New York enters the season facing fewer problems in this year of transition than do either Philadelphia, going from its walk-it-up, set-it-up style of the Wilt Chamberlain years to a running, pressing game, or Boston, where the troubles are more subtle, but real nonetheless.
Coach and perennial Boston star Bill Russell reported to camp 15 pounds overweight after spending virtually the whole summer in Hollywood. He had never before come in more than five pounds heavy. But he was light in one respect, not that he cared to lose the weight: his valuable backup man, Wayne Embry, was lost in the expansion. Finally, because it appears that for the sixth straight year the Celtics will receive only minimal help from their college draft, Coach Russell will start four men who are 30 or over.
This would all sound like a death knell, except that the same reasons, more or less, have been offered for years now to prove that Boston was through. At last glance, though, the Celtics were still listed as World Champions, Russell was still in the middle and John Havlicek was giving every indication of going another year without breaking a sweat. And what is old? asks General Manager Red Auerbach, who himself is now called venerable by none other than TV Announcer Tommy Heinsohn, who retired something like 54 titles ago. Auerbach may be beginning to push into Connie Mack or Amos Alonzo Stagg country, but it would be hard to prove that by the Bryant deal, which was very much in the tradition of this canny champion trader. Though no shooter, Bryant is an excellent defensive player and a diehard scuffler. He fits so neatly into the Celtic lineup that it seems he has always been there, providing balance to the special skills of the regular holdover backcourt men, Havlicek, Sam Jones and Larry Siegfried—all shooters—and permitting Havlicek to move into the forecourt more often. The combined ages of the starting front line of Russell, Bailey Howell and Satch Sanders add up almost to equal, well, Sam Jones's age.
This is to be Jones's last dance. It should be a good one, because he and all the old men (except the one the player-coach calls "my fat center") came into camp in top shape. A rejuvenated Sanders not only appears to be whole again after two lugubrious and injury-filled seasons, but he seems at last to understand Coach Russell. "I think he finally adjusted to my coaching," Russell says. "Every coach has his weaknesses, and one of mine is that I can't yell at my guys like Red used to do. But I think Satch now knows what I expect of him—to participate actively on offense as well as defense."
With Sanders hurt and ineffective much of last year, Don Nelson came into prominence and for much of the exhibition season was even being asked-at only 6'6"—to succeed Embry as the pivot reserve. Auerbach tried desperately to get another big man and finally picked up Bud Olsen from Milwaukee to back up Russell.
Three years of major expansion have greatly unbalanced team rosters, which are often loaded at one position and thin at another. Because teams have been less reluctant to protect backcourt men, the expansion clubs particularly have ended up with great depth in guards. It is likely that once the season starts and the disparate parts start costing games, the trading logjam will break and Auerbach will come up with another veteran reserve or two.
Providentially (and traditionally, too), Boston's early schedule is a lollipop. The Celtics play half of their first month's 14 games against expansion teams, while New York and Philadelphia will be facing a richer menu made up more of the better of the Western teams. If Boston is not in front after a month of play, it is a good indication that the jig finally is up.
New York, the people's choice at last, is surviving its serious losses in the expansion draft because it was so deep in talent to begin with. Everybody, in fact, wants to trade with the Knicks, but New York will not deal unless it gets an edge in the bargain. The Knicks have, for instance, a tremendously versatile and exciting backcourt that stars Dick Barnett, and second-year men Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley, whose potentials are vast. The fourth guard is Howie Komives. He would start on many teams, and should be traded, if for no other reason than to save him from the vicious booing, coarse and pitiless, that is rained down on him when he stands up to come into a game in New York. It is not pretty what these fans—or so these social criminals generously describe themselves—do every night to this man. But it is a time of public hate, open and undisguised, and sport appears to need its targets too.
Coach Red Holzman took over in the middle of last season. He somehow made a plus of the team's weakness—defense—by introducing a full-court zone press that picked up the team tempo and gave him the excuse to use more players. Holzman, who had been the team scout, started giving his own draft picks a chance to show why he wanted them. Frazier and Phil (Head-and-Shoulders) Jackson began to come into their own, Jackson playing windmill on the point of the press. The Knicks really are not a fast team—despite their quickness—and the press can be embarrassed by speedy guards. But it was so effective that this year almost every team will try it. For the Knicks, what is most important about the press is that it got the team interested in defense for the first time.